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How APA Made a Pact with DoD & CIA over Torture Interrogations

Author’s note, 4/29/09: This post’s text contains five editorial corrections, two by strikeout, and three by adding a small amount of additional text (in brackets). The corrections were made after feedback from Dr. Jean Maria Arrigo, relating to mischaracterizations I made regarding a few facts about her actions and background. I regret any discomfort this may have caused Dr. Arrigo.

Dr. Steven Miles, the author of Oath Betrayed – America’s Torture Doctors, and a prominent bioethicist at the University of Minnesota, has released the text of an open letter he has written to Dr. Stephen Behnke, Ethics Director of the American Psychological Association (APA), and Dr. Gerald Koocher, 2006 APA President.

Miles asks Behnke and Koocher "to publically urg[e] the APA to conduct a transparent review of how" it came to give a platform to "senior Department of Defense officials who were intimately involved in the support, protection, and implementation of corrupted interrogation standards." Behnke and Koocher are singled out as having "leadership roles in the APA’s relationship to… [torture] interrogations."

Miles is speaking most specifically about the PENS Task Force, established by the American Psychological Association in Spring 2005. PENS stands for Psychological Ethics and National Security. The Task Force was formed by the APA bureaucracy, with the following charge:

[E]xamine whether our current Ethics Code adequately addresses [the ethical dimensions of psychologists’ involvement in national security-related activities], whether the APA provides adequate ethical guidance to psychologists involved in these endeavors, and whether APA should develop policy to address the role of psychologists and psychology in investigations related to national security.

Dr. Miles asks Koocher and Behnke:

What were the formative contacts between DoD and APA that led to the creation of the PENS Task Force?

Who nominated and selected the members of the PENS Task Force?

What were the back channel communications between APA and DoD officials as the PENS Task Force Report was drafted and modified?

The answers to these questions cannot undo the damage but they are needed for those who can work to prevent such recruitment of a health professional organization in the future.

Miles has called for the APA to form its own "Truth Commission," joining the call of Psychologists for Social Responsibility for an investigation into the use of SERE, DoD, and CIA psychologists for Bush’s torture program, and ties between APA and the implementation of the controversial interrogations policy.

PENS’ Role in the Interrogation Scandal

The APA and the PENS Task Force may be a linchpin between the use of psychologists in the torture program and the higher-ups who were determined to implement such a program. In a way, DoD showed their hand, anxious to stamp down any dissent within the ranks of organized psychology, by stacking the composition of the PENS Task Force with military personnel, with Koocher and Behnke their willing accomplices. In the end, six of the nine members of the PENS TF were related to military activities, a clear majority.

One of military PENS participants was showcased in the Senate Armed Services Committee Report released last week. Lt. Col. Louie "Morgan" Banks, in 2002, the Chief Psychologist for U.S. Special Forces Command, was writing emails warning about the dangers of using SERE techniques in actual interrogation situations (see email from Banks to Major Paul Bruney at Gitmo, 10/2/02), even as only a month before, Banks was a key figure in organizing a training for Guantanamo psychologists and interrogators to learn SERE techniques!

At the time of the PENS meetings, Banks was also the senior SERE psychologist, and, as the internal opposition to official APA interrogations policy, the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology (CFEP) noted, "responsible for the training and oversight of all Army SERE Psychologists." It seemed strange at the time, but further revelations have made the appointment of Banks to the APA task force studying the appropriateness of psychologists participating in DoD interrogations more than simply suspicious.

Banks was not the only suspect member of the task force. In an FAQ on the subject, CFEP discussed another prominent PENS participant:

Scott Shumate, Ph.D. was, at the time of PENS, the chief psychologist for the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), the intelligence arm of the DoD. From April 2001 until May of 2003 he was the chief operational psychologist for the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center (CTC), and held that position during the period when [James] Mitchell and [Bruce] Jessen were contracted by the CTC to introduce SERE-based techniques into CIA counterterrorist operations.

The cast of dubious participants only grows, and the suspicion that the fix was in grew even upon the few non-military members of the PENS group. Looking around them, they started to feel uncomfortable, seeing the likes of Banks; Shumate; Col. Larry James (former Chief Psychologist for the Joint Intelligence Group (JIG) at Guantánamo, Jan-May 2003); former SERE psychologist/trainer, Captain Bryce Lefever, who had worked as a consultant to Special Forces in Afghanistan during the 2002 invasion; and Robert A. Fein, Ph.D., who worked as a consultant to Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) on "effective" interrogation methods, and was a subordinate of Shumate’s. (See bios for all PENS members here.)

The whole set-up felt wrong to two of the non-military members of the task force. When one of them, Dr. Jean Maria Arrigo, heard that no one would be allowed to take written notes at the PENS meetings, she secretly wrote notes on napkins [was rebuked by Scott Shumate for taking notes on the first day of meetings, she continued taking some notes anyway], and made efforts to secure the communications from the TF’s list-serv, which she deposited later at the Hoover Institution, and gave copies to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and apparently selected human rights groups, activists, and reporters.

What kind of material was discussed behind the scenes by the PENS participants? Well, here’s one example, a message from Dr. Koocher to the PENS group:

May 6, 2005: “In many of the circumstances we will discuss when we meet the psychologist’s role may bear on people who are not ‘clients’ in the traditional sense. Example, the psychologist employed by the CIA, Secret Service, FBI, etc., who helps formulate profiles for risk prevention, negotiation strategy, destabilization, etc., or the psychologist asked to assist interrogators in eliciting data or detecting dissimulation with the intent of preventing harm to many other people. In this case the client is the agency, government, and ultimately the people of the nation (at risk). The goal of such psychologists’ work will ultimately be the protection of others (i.e., innocents) by contributing to the incarceration, debilitation, or even death of the potential perpetrator, who will often remain unaware of the psychologists’ involvement.

"Even the death of the potential perpetrator"! "The debilitation"! One should remember, these are the pronouncements of the President of the American Psychological Association to his blue-ribbon (DoD-stacked) panel. They are also the words of someone undergoing a profound moral degeneration. This was amplified when, after Dr. Arrigo went public with her criticisms, Koocher labeled her actions "the sad emotional aftermath of a troubled upbringing complicated by the suicide of a parent who engaged behaviors she now abhors."

Of course, [I cannot know if Dr. Arrigo had a "troubled upbringing."] Dr. Arrigo had no "troubled upbringing." Her father was no criminal, nor was he even dead! I guess when you are caught out, your own actions can go to some fairly hysterical places. [Dr. Arrigo adds that at the time Dr. Koocher made his allegations, she was in "cordial contact" with her father.]

[Correction (4/30/09): Dr. Arrigo has some further clarifications concerning her role in the PENS Task Force, which I believe help correct the accuracy of this portion of the article. She wants to clarify that at the time of the task force deliberations, she had no suspicions about the presence of the military-intelligence figures, save for Dr. Fein, due to "previous interactions". Nor did the presence of the observers at the meetings, except for Dr. Russell Newman, cause her immediate concern. Such suspicions arose over a year or more later, after consultations with a few human rights scholars and two former counterintelligence officers; though it’s true, the behaviors of some of the APA figures present, during PENS deliberations did worry her at the time. Even so, Dr. Arrigo did not think to retrieve the PENS listserv until 13 months after the event, and only later thought of passing that material along to the Senate Armed Service Committee. Finally, Dr. Arrigo notes at the time of the PENS meetings she and Dr. Michael Wessells did not know that Dr. Newman’s wife was a SERE psychologist working at Guantanamo, and that potential conflict of interest was only discovered much later.]

Another PENS participant, Dr. Michael Wessels, Professor of Clinical Population and Family Health at Columbia University, ultimately resigned from PENS Task Force itself, the only member to do so. In a letter to PENS chair Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter, he explained:

Out of ethical concerns, I have decided to step down from the PENS Task Force because continuing work with the Task Force tacitly legitimates the wider silence and inaction of the APA on the crucial issues at hand. At the highest levels, the APA has not made a strong, concerted, comprehensive, public and internal response of the kind warranted by the severe human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. The PENS Task Force had a very limited mandate and was not structured in a manner that would provide the kind of comprehensive response or representative process needed.

There was plenty more evidence of high-level APA and governmental interest in keeping the lid on the PENS process, such that the conclusion of the PENS Task Force was foreordained: there was nothing unethical about psychologist participation in the interrogations process then underway at various DoD sites. In fact, psychologist participation was about securing safety for the prisoners, and giving expertise to the process.

This must have been good news to the various mucky-mucks who attended the PENS sessions in order to observe. These unofficial attendees included the Director of the APA Practice Directorate, Russ Newman; as well as four members from the APA’s Science Policy or Science Directorate, Susan Brandon, Steven Breckler, Heather Kelly, Geoff Mumford, among others. According to Arrigo, it was unusual to have as observers "lobbyists on issues that overlapped with the mission of the Task Force."

Newman’s presence raised some eyebrows, as his wife was Dr. Debra Dunivin, an active duty SERE psychologist working with Banks and James at Guantanamo. Conflict of interest anybody?

As Lt. Col. Banks wrote on the PENS Listserv on August 8, 2005, after the report was rushed through and approved:

Last Friday, I spent eight hours with the Army’s Surgeon General, LTG Kiley, along with Larry James, Debra Dunivin, and several others. We were trying to establish the doctrinal guidelines and training model for psychologists performing this job. The TF [Task Force] report provided, again, a solid anchor to use in our deliberations.

The Army Surgeon General was involved, too? How far does the cast of characters of this incestuous menagerie extend?

Beyond PENS: The Bigger Picture of APA Subservience to National Security Programs

The appearance of the "observers" from the Science Directorate was notable, as these psychologists were key figures in APA lobbying of Defense Department funds. One of these figures, Susan Brandon, was working at the time of the PENS process for the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. She has also worked for Mitre Corporation, and was once Senior Scientist at APA, as well as Program Officer for Affect and Biobehavioral Regulation at NIMH.

Brandon also has the dubious distinction of being one of the chief organizers of a CIA/RAND/APA workshop entitled the "Science of Deception: Integration of Practice and Theory", held in Arlington, VA, in July 2003. She shared organizational tasks for this affair with Kirk Hubbard, Chief of the Research & Analysis Branch, Operational Assessment Division of the CIA. One agenda item at this workshop was to discuss new ways to utilize drugs and sensory bombardment techniques to break down interrogatees.

Here’s one example of the workshop’s "thematic scenarios":

# How do we find out if the informant has knowledge of which s/he is not aware?

# How important are differential power and status between witness and officer?

# What pharmacological agents are known to affect apparent truth-telling behavior?….

# What are sensory overloads on the maintenance of deceptive behaviors? How might we overload the system or overwhelm the senses and see how it affects deceptive behaviors?

Some time back, I wrote to some of the key APA officials involved in this workshop, but they never responded to my queries. That includes an email to the APA ethics director, Stephen Behnke, as well.

Now that we’ve gotten to the truth drugs, the sensory overwhelm and "overload of [the] system", it feels time to stop, to wash off the ordure, if nothing else.

From the current perspective of recent revelations on the torture scandal, from the OLC memos to the release of the full SASC report, it’s clear that there’s much more to be revealed. For instance, what role did APA play in the operational planning that resulted in the various torture programs? (For it’s also clear now, that there was more than one such program, i.e., the "enhanced interrogation program" outlined by the Bybee memo, and the JTF-GTMO interrogation plan forwarded to the Joint Chiefs of Staff by General James T. Hill, Commander at SOUTHCOM, in late October 2002.)

Will we ever hear more about the double game played by the likes of Banks? Or will we know the real behind-the-scenes story about PENS? What exactly did go on at that CIA/RAND/APA July 2003 meeting, and what psychologists, psychiatrists and others were present, discussing ways to implement torture? Will Susan Brandon be called to the stand? Or Scott Shumate? And then there are the charges by Jane Mayer and others that yet another former APA president, Martin Seligman, was involved in teaching theories of "learned helplessness" to SERE psychologists-cum-torturers, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.

We won’t probably get to know much of this information unless investigations are begun, and soon, before all the dead bodies are buried, and the political opening for this vital social endeavor is closed for another generation.

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.